They fall to the dance floor during sha-la-la, tumbling backward on middle-aged spines and kicking their legs like waterbugs. There are five of them, all in their 40s and able-bodied, surrounded by an audience of kids in specialized wheelchairs.
It’s the first week of summer and the last week of June, the week they’ve kept reserved every year for almost three decades to volunteer at Camp Cavell in rural eastern Michigan. A big moon, almost full, rises over chilly Lake Huron outside, with a whole Strawberry Moon set for tomorrow. Their group is only almost complete, too. A sixth member is absent again for the 26th straight year, but he’ll always be here, they believe, as long as they keep coming.
The song is Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and the five men have been doing this dance, if you can call it that, since high school in the early 1990s. That was back when they answered only to cooler nicknames—Buck and Pieper and Voog and Mayo and Armstrong—and they lived in the orbit of Eric Rentenbach, or Ric, the most popular kid at Grosse Pointe South High.
Ric was an artist with a particular interest in pointillism, a style in which little dots come together to make bigger patterns to make a full painting. He had a way of doing that, too, appreciating the larger image and the individual components at once. He was the school’s most interesting single character, but he hated being by himself. He was the student body president and one of the Detroit News’s top 20 seniors in 1992, and he also stood out as the only student wheeling through the hallways with an aggressive form of muscular dystrophy.
ERIC RENTENBACH WITH HIS PARENTS, JACKIE AND PAUL
He and his friends would cruise around Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit, in his parents’ maroon Econoline van, which was equipped with a wheelchair lift. They called it the Ric Van. They took it to sporting events and concerts and on beer runs. His friends were responsible for a few dents in the Ric Van, sometimes because Ric instigated them.
“Hit the garbage can!” he once shouted from the back while Mayo was driving, wanting to experience every detail of a regular teenage life, even the sound of metal on metal. “Hit it!”
Mayo hit it. They did everything he wanted to do.
Each year from the age of 6, Ric would disappear for the last week of June for Muscular Dystrophy Association Summer Camp. He’d come back and tell them stories. “It’s a magical place,” he’d say, and they wouldn’t understand. Why did he need to go to a camp with other kids when he had them?
When he was 16, he invited them to see. Voog and Buck went up that first year. Eric’s dad had reservations. “I’m afraid you’re going to think all of the kids are like Eric,” Paul Rentenbach told the boys. “But they’re not. Everybody with dystrophy is different.”
Josh Eltervoog, then 16, and John “Buck” Brooks, 15, drove up in the Ric Van anyway, pulling down the long dirt driveway of Camp Cavell to a scene of more than 80 kids with various degrees of the muscle-destroying disease. Some campers welcomed Eric like old friends. Voog and Buck saw him like they never had, as just another guy in a wheelchair rather than the only guy in a wheelchair. They saw him around people who understood things about his life that they never could.
Voog and Buck volunteered as attendants and took care of Eric when he needed to be wheeled to dinner, to use the bathroom, or to dress up for the big dance held every year on the second to last night of camp.
That was 1990. They invited more friends the next year and the next, among them Mike Armstrong, Jeff Mayoras, and Mark Pieper.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: JOHN BROOKS, JOSH ELTERVOOG, MIKE ARMSTRONG, MARK PIEPER, JEFF MAYORAS
Eric’s last camp was 1992. With only a rare exception during college or for an emergency, the other five have attended every MDA Summer Camp since. And each year, on the second to last night, the kids come together for a dance, and the DJ gives the “old guys” one song.
Hey where did we go? it begins.
“Are we really doing this again?” Voog asks as the lyrics build.
Whatever happened, to Tuesday and so slow?
“Oh, God,” he says. He’s a stay-at-home dad whose head is a mix of bald and buzzed-cut. He’s the only one who still lives in Grosse Pointe. He looks over at the others: a schoolteacher who flew here from Colorado, a payroll coordinator and a small-business owner who drove from Chicago, and a forklift salesman who flew from Atlanta. “These are my people,” Pieper, the schoolteacher, told me a few weeks before this year’s camp. “You’ll see. They’re the people I connect with best in my life.”
Do you remember when …
“Again?” Voog shouts in the phoniest protest I’ve ever heard.
… ah-we used to sing?
Then the floor rumbles and it’s all sha-la-las and la-dee-dahs and laughter.
* * *
We all need a crew. People we trust enough to be foolish around. Eric Rentenbach needed it more than most. Every day after the last bell at school, he’d say goodbye to his friends, only to call them within minutes of getting home.
“I’d walk in the door and there’d be a message on my parents’ answering machine,” Pieper tells me. “And it’d be Eric: ‘Who’s coming over?!?’”
Eric was four when his parents noticed he had trouble climbing steps. Jackie, his mother, remembers when doctors diagnosed him with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, an incurable form of the disease found mostly in boys. This was the early 1980s, at a time when most people with Duchenne didn’t live past their teens.
“My biggest fear was that he would be 10 and in a wheelchair and he wouldn’t have friends,” Jackie tells me. “Thing is, he had more friends than I ever did in my life.”
A suburban town along Lake St. Clair, Grosse Pointe was and is one of the wealthiest areas of Detroit. Members of the Ford family moved here as they built their automobile dynasty. Grosse Pointe South High was built in 1928 in Neo-Georgian style, with a 134-foot-tall clock tower. Today there’s a big rock out front for organizations to paint, and next to the rock is a maple tree with a sign that says, “Please don’t paint the tree.” Across the street are a pizza place and a sub shop. On a June morning this past year, kids were still roaming around the sprawling, green campus, weeks after school let out.
Jackie, a schoolteacher, and Paul, a corporate attorney, kept their kitchen stocked with Hot Pockets for Eric’s friends. They welcomed everyone, guys and girls. They decided that when the friends were old enough to drive, they could take the van and Eric anywhere.
At a time when his everyday existence was becoming more structured and orderly because he required help, Eric craved mischief. His friends were happy to oblige, and their families were often unknowing participants.
“He got drunk one time and was driving his wheelchair all over my house, and he hit all the hardwood doors and messed them up,” Pieper says. “And when my parents got home they were like, ‘Oh, you had Eric over. That’s so nice.’”
The five guys who still go to MDA Summer Camp told me story after story during my three days at Camp Cavell this summer. Eric’s favorite part of camp was the pranks. Once, late at night, he asked Buck to switch beds with him and put a cover over his face. Then Eric called for the male assistant to help him with the bathroom. Everything went according to plan, with the assistant bringing the urinal bottle over and putting it up to Buck’s… well, you know where the bottle would go… as the cabin erupted with laughter.
Eric loved music. When they went to concerts, he hid beers under his shirt because, after all, what security guard’s going to pat down the kid in a wheelchair? Voog and Buck were his most consistent concert buddies, Armstrong tells me.
“They fancied themselves as having all this music knowledge,” Armstrong says. “Their classic line was, ‘Oh, their earlier stuff’s better.’ And we were like, ‘Dude, you’re 16. Shut up.’ ”
Antics aside, Eric excelled in school. His senior year, he was accepted into the arts program at his dream university, Michigan. He and his parents worked with the school to find an older student who could be his caretaker, and to make sure the dorms and classrooms could accommodate his wheelchair.
In June of that year, Eric parted his hair in the middle and wheeled up a ramp to a stage on that big, grassy lawn in front of Grosse Pointe South, and the crowd erupted as he accepted his diploma.
“Eric Rentenbach brought magic to that outdoor stage, even to those of us in the crowd of relatives and friends of the Class of ’92 who had never met him,” a Detroit News columnist later wrote. “He owned a thousand-points-of-light smile that he wantonly displayed as the girls kissed him, and the guys shook his hand, and a few of his closest male friends smothered him with mock-passionate embraces.”
* * *
MDA Summer Camp, held in 48 locations across 29 states each year, is as adorably corny as any other summer camp. At the Camp Cavell location, there’s a closing ceremony that takes two hours, as all 83 campers receive an award of some sort in a room that’s way too hot. There’s a camp song! And here at Camp Cavell it comes with a dance, choreographed by one of the attendants. The lyrics go like this.
We’re all the same in this magical place.
And the best of friends are more like family.
That’s why camp is like home to me.
It’s all sort of… campy. But also, subtly profound.
On the last full day this year, Pieper and Armstrong and Buck stand under a huge beech tree where they’ve rigged up harnesses and straps and carabiners for an activity they call “tree-climbing.” Last year, the three of them traveled to New Mexico to become certified to run it. The premise is this: Every kid should be able to go up in a tree, even those without enough strength to stand.
The guys are transferring a girl named Alaina from her chair to a harness. Her favorite color is pink and her best friend at camp, Ellie, is in the harness next to her: “Are you up here yet?” Ellie yells down from her perch in the tree.
It takes a few minutes to stabilize her neck, but they finally get Alaina off the ground. Almost as soon as they do, she asks to come down.
She says she wants her feet to touch the ground.
Buck lowers her slowly until her pink sandals touch. She smiles. Ellie asks to come down, too. Other kids look forward to tree-climbing as a chance to be lifted up in the air, but these girls want to use their time out of the wheelchairs to feel the earth again.
Pieper swings Ellie. “Push me harder!” she yells. He spins her once, and she asks to be spun again. This goes on and on until Ellie is swinging and spinning back and forth between Pieper and her attendant, maybe 20 feet apart, the little girl’s smile lighting up the tree.
“This is the best day ever,” she says.
Just then, a voice on a walkie-talkie says it’s time for the groups to move to the next activity.
For all the wishes made and granted at MDA Summer Camp—one camper got to meet her favorite Detroit Lion; a Harley-Davidson group came through this year with sidecars for the kids; and one year the Detroit Red Wings brought the Stanley Cup here—the one wish that seems to hover over the whole place is a wish that can’t be granted, a wish to stretch time.
As Pieper slows Ellie’s swing to a stop, an attendant tells Alaina that she needs to put her in the wheelchair again.
“No, I love this,” says the little girl with dirt on her pink sandals.
* * *
Two weeks after the 1992 graduation, a dozen kids from Grosse Pointe South High filled the Ric Van and made their way to Camp Cavell.
“It looked like a clown car,” says Maggie Segal, who remains the MDA Summer Camp director. She calls the group the G.P. crew. “And Eric had the biggest grin on his face.”
“Knuckleheads,” is how Rod Justice, who’s worked this camp for 40 years, remembers them. “What do you expect? They’re teenagers. They’re knuckleheads.”
We all need a crew, and in the summer of 1992, Eric Rentenbach brought both of his together. By then he was a camp veteran, someone the other kids looked up to. That year, he briefly introduced himself to a 6-year-old red-haired boy named Gary Bartle, who had only recently been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. It was Bartle’s first year here, and it would be Eric’s last.
College awaited at the end of summer for Eric and his Grosse Pointe friends—Michigan State and Wayne State and Michigan and, for Armstrong, the University of Georgia. So they made the most of their time in the woods. They goofed off after hours and on the last night, they met on the deck overlooking Lake Huron and smoked cigars.
Two months later, Eric had one thing to take care of before going off to Ann Arbor for freshman year—take part in the local Muscular Dystrophy telethon on Labor Day weekend.
During the fundraiser, he collapsed. His parents took him to the hospital and doctors told them that the disease was finally taking over his heart.
It never took his humor, though. In his last days at the hospital, he asked his doctor where she went to college. When she said the name of a certain Michigan rival, Eric turned to his mother and said, “Oh God, Mom, you mean I entrusted my life with someone who went to Ohio State?”
Soon, that doctor gave him the option of going home, so he did. The last Saturday in September 1992 was Grosse Pointe South’s homecoming. His younger sister was on the homecoming court. Several of Eric’s friends showed up at the house that day with corsages for her, then worked double-duty as her date and his caretaker at the dance. Sha-la-la played and they took him home.
Three days later, Eric’s friends were back at college and Eric with his parents when he died. That weekend, the News ran an extended obituary on the lifestyle section’s front page.
* * *
Across camp from the tree-climbing station, light waves from Lake Huron splash against the shore as longtime nurse Marie Clavenna watches over a group of campers. This is the “beach” station. Kids who are still able can go into the water. Three boys in wheelchairs drop their feet in a kiddie pool. And others just scoot around spraying Super Soakers at each other.
Marie remembers when Eric first came to camp in the 1980s. One reason she still returns every year is to see his surviving friends. She remembers throwing a small shower for Voog’s baby at camp a few years ago. “I just told him, ‘I hope your daughter is born with the same peace you have,’ ” she says. “There’s just something about them. And I know it was Eric who gave it to them. He gave them all something that lives on.”
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Marie looks down and picks up a rock in the sand. It’s a Petoskey Stone, she explains. It’s Michigan’s state rock. Millions of years ago, most of the state was a shallow sea filled with coral colonies. Petoskey stones look like simple, sand-colored rocks, but up close you can see markings that look like little dots, and those dots combine to make a pattern of dots that tell Marie it’s fossilized coral that’s worth saving.
Over the years, the rules for camp tightened, the pranks became tamer, and the knuckleheads grew up. In 1997, Jeff Mayoras met a woman named Lisa, an attendant who also had a high school friend with MD. They talked some that summer and came back the next year. After the 1998 camp, they started dating. They were married the next year.
“Lisa always jokes that if we get divorced she gets my friends,” Mayo says.
Jeff and Lisa live just outside of Chicago now, and they drive here each year with their daughter, now 12. She goes to a summer camp for able-bodied kids next door, while they work the MDA camp.
Mike Armstrong brings his daughter up from Georgia every year; she attends that camp, too. John Brooks brings his three children to do the same.
During a break on the final day this year, their kids visited the tree-climbing station. Brooks raised his son Oliver into the sky and told him he had to use the proper technique to lower himself, hand over hand. “Be sure to hold the rope outside your legs, Oliver!” Brooks yelled up the tree, to which Armstrong quipped, “Yeah, someone wants to have grandkids.”
It’s a silly joke, but it also hints at something more meaningful, like everything about this place seems to do: It’s easy to foresee a year when Eric’s friends have grandkids coming to Camp Cavell in his honor.
“Whatever magic wand Eric waved over them,” Maggie, the camp director, says, “it worked.”
* * *
After the closing ceremony that night, the campers drive and walk out of the assembly hall and head toward the “wishing tree.” Each gets a glowstick to tie to strings hanging off the tree.
It’s dusk, and tears start falling. Parents will arrive at about 9 a.m. tomorrow to take them home. There are 83 campers here and each has at least one attendant. Add in dozens of nurses and maintenance people and staff members, and there are more than 200 people holding glowsticks.
“I don’t want to leave camp,” a young boy with curly hair wheels over to tell his brother, who’s also in a wheelchair. “Me, either,” his brother says.
One by one they approach the tree, hang a light, and make a wish.
A 32-year-old man with a reddish beard is in a wheelchair toward the back of the crowd. Gary Bartle, the 6-year-old boy who met Eric Rentenbach in 1992, is now a writer in Detroit. Advances in treatments have increased life expectancies dramatically in the past quarter-century. MDA had to put age restrictions on camp when Bartle was in his early 20s, and this is his first time back. He’s here only for a few hours.
“It’s my favorite place in the world,” Bartle says. “I can remember every single day, and every single day has a memory.”
The five guys in the G.P. Crew don’t hang their glowsticks when the campers do. After hugs and first goodbyes, the crowd splits for another tradition—a final campfire and late-night hot dogs. At about 11 p.m., with everybody stuffed and most of the campers in bed, Pieper and Mayo and Armstrong and Voog and Brooks are sitting around a firepit with glowsticks in their pockets.
“Alright, are we doing this again?” Voog says, and they head toward the wishing tree.
They light up a few cigars and tell stories from the week, and from years past. There’s the one about the streaking. And oh, remember the one about the toilet seat? They could go on and on, but the ends of the cigars tell them when time’s up.
This final part, there’s no need to ask if they’re doing it again. In fact, there’s no need to say anything. When you’re with best friends, sometimes you just know. They take their glowsticks and walk into the strings of lights, neon incarnations of primary colors dangling around them, and they stand quietly for a few moments with their sniffles and wishes.
After the last light is hung, they hug each other and promise to return next year. And high in the sky above Lake Huron, tonight the Strawberry Moon is full.
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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.